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BOP Grievance System Can Foster "Compliance or Defiance"

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) first instituted the prisoner grievance system (IR) in 1974, and since that time it appears to have become an important tool to defuse prisoner complaints about the BOP and its procedures. A new study by David M. Bierie, of the U.S. Marshals Service in Alexandria, Virginia, and the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, bears this out. Numerous academics and policymakers believe that the failure of prison administrators to respond to prisoner complaints often contributes to violent disturbances, in penal institutions.

Yet another benefit of the IR system might be the fact that by responding to prisoner complaints administratively, prison officials can deflect or reduce judicial intervention of the BOP. Indeed, many federal court decisions have been decided for - the BOP based upon prisoners' failures to "exhaust their administrative remedies."

Although the study concentrated on what it termed the "procedural justice paradigm," a corollary finding was that "violence grew as the number of support staff per (prisoner), (e.g. teachers, counselors) declined within a given prison. However, the opposite effect was found with respect to decrease in custody staff per (prisoner) within a given prison."

According to the study, "Generally speaking, people feel a process is more 'just' when their voice is heard before decisions are made, decision makers treat everyone equally, outcomes are proportionate, and there is a process of appeal or challenge if they don't agree with an outcome." The study makes liberal use of other studies of the American criminal justice system, to lend more weight to their hypothesis.

The Tyler study of 2006 found that a "feeling of responsibility reflects a willingness to suspend personal consideration of self-interest and to ignore personal moral values because a person thinks that an authority or a rule is entitled to determine appropriate behavior within a given situation or situations." The Sherman study of 1993 posits that the two-step process of (1 using authority to increase the perception of legitimacy, coupled with processes supporting that perception,(2 can substantially increase compliance with authority. Conversely, perceived illegitimacy can lead to defiance of authority.

These and other studies showed that an IR system was not only about fixing problems directly, but permitting prisoners to vent their frustrations and anger about perceived injustices by prison officials without resorting to violence. According to the study, "prisons also present an environment optimized to magnify the likely impacts of perceived injustice by presenting environments that are . characterized by 'verbal threats and insults, physical pain, unpleasant odors, disgusting scenes, noise, heat, air pollution, personal space violations and high density...Perceived injustice is serious, especially in the eyes of (prisoners), and the impact and relevance is further magnified by the environment they live in, delivering a near constant state of elevated and clustered strain."

The study noted that the IR system can be perceived by some prisoners as overly formalistic, and more • concerned with procedural practices and deadlines than the substance of the complaint. According to the study, "data suggest a higher volume of late or rejected responses will increase violence."

The author of the study covered the period from January,2000 through December, 2007, utilizing data taken from the BOP's Sentry system, the National Finance Center (NFC) data concerning staffing and duty stations to check staff levels, and other BOP data studies showing the number and classification of prisoner IR complaints. By far the most complaints were filed in the areas of Discipline, Medical, and Staff, with food, housing and staff use of force at the bottom of the list. The number of procedural rejections and prisoner density were also tracked to see if there was a relationship between these figures and prisoner violence. Ratio of prisoners to staff was also included in the study.

Interestingly, the number of IR complaints appeared to have peaked in 2004, while assaults and serious violence within the BOP appears to have increased from 2000 to 2007, perhaps reflecting the increased overcrowding problem within the BOP.

The study showed that "most features of the grievance process...did not impact violence. Neither the volume of current complaints, nor the distributive justice outcomes predicted violence...Two features of the grievance process consistently predicted...violence: the proportion of responses which were late, and the proportion of responses which were substantively rejected."

Finally, the study concluded that "when more support staff per (prisoner) are present (in the same prison compared to itself over time), violence declines." The study also suggested that further review and investigation is needed to decipher why, but suggests that "it may be related to interaction styles of (support and custody) staff, the rate by which they solve problems, and other characteristics."

See: Procedural Justic eand Prison: Examining Complaints Among Federal Inmates (2000-2007), by David M. Bierle, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Advance online publication. doi: 10/1037/a0028427, 2012.

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